One More Promise to Keep
Trooper is getting old.
His teeth are like broken piano keys, pushed to destruction in part by his propensity to chew on rocks when he was younger, and his penchant in old age for chewing on cedar mulch and hickory sticks. He gets a rawhide chew every day, but it only takes him a minute or two to wolf that down, and then he is back to his sticks and mulch. There is no stopping him.
Trooper has always been a big Border Terrier -- a 15-inch tall dog with an 18-inch chest when he was in working condition -- bigger now. His sire and half-brother were the #1 Border Terriers in America in their day, but I do not think either one of them saw a single day of honest work underground in the field.
Trooper saw more than a little though, didn't he?
His claim to fame is not that he was led around on a string at the Westminster Dog Show, but that he has worked every kind of critter found to ground in our area.
Trooper has always been too big, but he made up for it with a fire called desire. And despite all, he did got in some pretty tight holes in his day.
But, of course, he also did not get in a lot of holes too. He was just too big. He had to be rescued at times when he got stuck underground.
Such are the trials and tribulations of an over-large working terrier.
Troopers' last day in the field was almost his last day on earth. I do not talk about that injury very much, because such injuries are rare and as a general rule they should be kept private.
But I have been asked about Trooper in an email, and so I will respond here, because there is no shame in the story, only deep regret.
For the record, it was a serious injury -- the kind of thing that happens so rarely as to be a freak occurrence.
But, of course freak occurrences occur all the time to dogs, don't they? Ask any vet who has treated a dog impaled on a steel picket while trying to jump a fence.
Ask any vet how many balls, socks, and Christmas ornaments he or she has had to surgically remove from canine stomachs.
Bad things happen to good dogs all the time -- dogs that never left the couch but once to run out the door to be struck by a car.
Only one bad thing ever happened to Trooper. And, for the record, it happened while he was doing something he loved.
The problem with Trooper, to be honest, has always been Trooper.
If you forgive him his size, he is a wonderful dog in so many ways: gentle, kind, obedience, loyal, mellow and smart.
Yet, Trooper is also as hard as a cut nail.
I have seen a fair number of terriers at work in the field, but I have never seen a dog harder than Trooper.
This is said as a regret. If you have a really hard dog, regret is always a cloud looming on the horizon.
I myself do not value a hard dog. I know some who do, and each to his own. I have had a very hard dog, and I do not want another.
Of course, hard is as hard does. I always said Sailor was a soft dog, and as a consequence some folks expressed genuine surprise to see her ever go teeth-in to quarry. In their mind, a hard dog was any dog that used its teeth, and a "soft dog" would only bay.
Such is the world of theory. In the real world, dogs are not quite so easily divided, are they?
Most working terriers learn to mix it up and to differentiate butt from breath. A really hard dog, however, does not.
That is what I call a hard dog. It is a dog that is always dead-silent and teeth-on from the beginning to the end.
Trooper was such a dog.
A truly hard dog is like a boxer who only knows how to hit. Feint? Weave? Back up? Duck? Use psychology? The hitter knows none of that. He thinks boxing is all about hitting, and so all he does is hit, and he has a very short career in the ring as a consequence.
The same is true, in my experience, for a really hard dog. These dogs have no reverse. If they meet a tough and toothy thing in a hole, they do not care.
It is well positioned behind a rock? So what? It can slash and rip with impunity? No matter.
The hard dog simply pushes forward, and tries to make the impossible turn in the pipe in order to bite harder -- never mind the incredible punishment it is going to take for all its futile efforts.
A hard dog is not necessarily stupid.
Trooper is hard, and brilliant. He is a very biddable dog. He is smarter than most of the people I know.
But Trooper is a hard dog.
A hard dog can be an asset in some situations, but in truth not nearly as often as its owner might wish.
A shovel and a pole snare do better work at the end of a dig than any hard dog, and they are a lot cheaper to feed and maintain as well.
A hard dog does fine in some situations, but in hard soil and small earths with formidable well-placed quarry, the odds swing in the other direction.
The odds swing, but the dog cannot swing with them. The hard dog has no change-up to throw in this ball game. He only knows how to double down with a losing hand.
And so that is what he does, and tragedy is too often the result.
Of course, some people tell a different story. Like the boxing promoter who says "this new hitter is so hard and fast he cannot be matched or damaged," they will say their dog is the exception. Their dog will not get seriously damaged.
And perhaps it won't. If a hard dog is only worked in soft ground, and a truly bad location never presents itself, it may escape a wreck.
Similarly, if a dog is not worked too often, it may win the roll of the dice and come out hand-high every time. A hitter can win ever fight if he does not box too often, or too long.
Whatever. Each to his own. Perhaps others can get by with a hard dog. I could not.
Of course, my beliefs are shaped by my experience, and my experience is shaped by the land and the wildlife on it.
I dig in the Eastern U.S. where our pipes are tight, our ground is often very hard, and our quarry is so common as to be available year-round and without interruption.
Put all that together, and then go out 20 or 30 times a year digging on three or four critters an outing, and a hard dog's odds begin to slip south over time.
The most damage my dogs have ever taken has not come from fox or raccoon, but from the lowly groundhog. Part of this is a function of numbers; lots of groundhogs. Part of the equation is a matter of demeanor; a groundhog will stand back in silence, and the dog does not always know where it is. A well-placed groundhog can open up a lip faster than it takes to say it.
A groundhog may not look like much, but it is not a soft target. Groundhog skulls are as thick as a skillet, and the animal has no neck at all. And, as impossible as it sounds, even a 10-pound groundhog cannot be pulled from a tight pipe in hard earth by a very strong 15-pound terrier. I am 200 pounds, and not all lard, and it is no easy thing for me to tail out a groundhog. They do not "go gentle into that good night."
As for teeth, a groundhog's are like wood chisels. And though the jaw is not deep, the bite is powerful and crushing. If a groundhog gets situated in the right location, head out, a dog's only smart strategy is to stand back and bay.
Which is what most terriers do -- one reason serious damage to working terriers is not all that common. Most of the time my dogs come away unscathed, and the more experience they have in the field, the less likely they are to see damage.
The occasional small lip rip still occurs, of course, but those tend to heal up in a few weeks. They are expected -- part of the bump and grind of terrier work.
Trooper's wreck was something altogether different.
Oddly, Trooper's last groundhog was not a large one; only 10 pounds I think.
In fact, the relatively small size of this fellow -- coupled with Trooper's oversized frame -- was probably what contributed to the situation.
Trooper had hammered himself into a too tight pipe following this groundhog, and he could not move forward or backwards. In the end, while both Trooper and the groundhog could both bite each other, the groundhog could move around a bit, while Trooper was pinned in the earth like a bug on a board.
Before he died, the groundhog managed to work his curved chisel-like teeth up under Trooper's lip where he carved upward, cutting away gum and connecting tissue that lay underneath. Somehow, the groundhog managed to go around the muzzle like a paring knife loosening a grapefruit skin. The end result was not dramatic from a quick glance at the outside, but it was devastating on the inside.
When I finally dug down to them, the groundhog was stone dead, but Trooper could not stand up to get up out of the hole. He appeared to be in shock. I could tell Trooper was in a world of hurt, and I did not waste time examining him too much. Instead, I loading him up and sped him to the vet. There, it was quickly apparent what the problem was -- Trooper's maxilla could be lifted up entirely off his face like the bonnet of a car. The skin on his muzzle lifted up from a hinge just below his eye. This was a devastating injury -- far worse than it looked from the outside -- and in the end it cost me $3,000 to get Trooper's face sewn back on.
Trooper and I were fortunate in that one of the top five maxilla surgeons in the United States was nearby, and he came in -- on a holiday -- just to work on Trooper.
Three days after his surgery, I took Trooper home. I had to feed him through a tube in his neck for the next two weeks.
Trooper recovered pretty quickly both spiritually and emotionally. Physically, however, he has never been quite the same old dog.
The surgeon sewed Trooper's face back on slightly crooked, and one tooth peaks out from under his front lip if you look at him straight on.
Trooper's nose is still there, but it's as hard as an olive pit, and as wrinkled as a prune.
More seriously, the groundhog's bite crushed one of Trooper's sinus cavities, and as a result Trooper snorts. In winter he is prone to colds because things don't drain quite right. He sneezes a lot.
And yet, Trooper is a happy dog.
If health is to be judged by a wag of the tail and the full-on charge to the food bowl, Trooper is in fine fettle.
He is the first dog at the door to greet me in the evening, and he is the loudest barker in the pack if a stranger comes up the driveway.
And Trooper's basic good nature has not changed. He is still as loyal and obedient as any dog I have owned, and he will give you an honest grin even when you don't have a bit of food to share.
But, though Trooper is more than willing, I have never hunted him again. Not after the wreck.
Trooper does not quite understand why the other dogs get to hunt, but he does not. He sniffs at the other dogs when they return from the field, and he can smell the story on them: dirt and vine, groundhog and skunk, raccoon and possum, fox and deer.
He knows what he is missing, but I am in charge of things, and it's been my job to balance his longevity against his biggest joy in life.
Perhaps now, however, in Trooper's old age, it is time to reassess that balance.
After all, Trooper is old now.
He does not have too much time left.
Over the course of the last 7 years, I have allowed him to get a little fatter than I did when he worked. I do not strip him out as much.
He does not have the muscle on him he once did, but he is still very mobile, and his eyes are still clear.
His heart is still willing, and I think his body is able.
His rear section is not as strong as it was. That is true.
And this winter his sinuses seem to be having a particularly hard time staying clear.
Trooper has several lipomas as well -- flat fatty tumors -- on his stomach. They are doing him no harm, but they are not a good sign either. There is nothing to be done about them, but they are more evidence that the clock is ticking and the sand is running out of the glass. I know it, and I think Trooper does too.
There is an arc to a life, and you do not need to be a weatherman to tell which way the wind blows. Even a dog knows when his clock starts to wind down.
And so I think it is nearly time to pay off my promise to Trooper.
You see, back when I took Trooper out of the field after his wreck, I promised him once last hunt. I do not know if Trooper will be here next year, or whether he will be able to work.
"Maybe" is my answer to the first question. "I doubt it" is my answer to the second.
And so, if Trooper has one hunt left in him, this winter is his time.
And it will be fox.
One last flash of red fur on white snow. One last taste of life as God intended. There is, after all, more to life than longevity. The dogs have taught me that, if they have taught me nothing else.
So I will let this old dog -- my old friend -- have one last taste of his youth before time hunts him down. He will go to earth one last time, of course, but before that fateful day he deserves to have one more day in the field as the hero of his own story.
That was the promise. And that is the promise I will keep.